Of all the institutions of high culture that have undergone significant change in recent decades, none has been more radically transformed than the art museum. In every aspect of its function, its atmosphere, and its scale of operations, in the character and number of the events that it encompasses, in the nature and size of the public it attracts, and in the role it plays in codifying—and at times deconstructing—our ideas about what art is, the museum has been so dramatically altered in our lifetime that in many important respects it can no longer be said to be the same institution we came to in our youth. And of all the changes that have overtaken the art museum in our time, the most crucial has been the elevation of change itself to the status of a governing principle.

In the past we looked to the art museum for our touchstones of artistic quality and achievement. It was in the museums that we learned to become connoisseurs of artistic accomplishment—to become intimate with and knowledgeable about works of art over the long term; to acquire a sense of judgment and discrimination about their special attributes, about their differences and resemblances, and their complex relation to each other and to ourselves. It was through this process that our pleasure in art was deepened and our understanding of it enlarged, and this was as true for the amateur public, which we are all a part of at the outset, as for the professional. “The Louvre,” wrote Cézanne, “is the book in which we learn to read,” and it was understood that learning of this sort could not be hurried by crash courses, superficial entertainments, or overnight conversions. Like all learning that is serious, that becomes a personal and permanent acquisition and thus a part of our lives, it required time and application, and one of its essential preconditions was a certain stability in the museum itself—the kind of stability that precludes precipitous change and a fickle, continual tampering with the objects of our scrutiny. We did not look to the art museum for news, but on the contrary, for what remained vital and enduring after it had ceased to be news.

Nowadays, however, we expect of our museums that they will be dynamic rather than stable, that they will no longer be guided by fixed standards or revered traditions, but just the reverse—that they will shed convention, defy precedent, and shatter established values as often and as eagerly as the most incendiary avant-gardist of yesteryear. We demand of our museums that they bring us news as regularly as the media itself, and this inevitably entails a shift of attention from the permanent to the temporary—a shift now everywhere in evidence in the museum world and officially codified in the name of the museum facility in Los Angeles that calls itself the Temporary Museum of Contemporary Art, or the Temporary Contemporary, as it is better known. It is thus one of the paradoxes of the art museum as a cultural force that as the reign of the avant-garde has drawn to a close as far as the creation of new art is concerned, its program of incessant and omnivorous change has been enthusiastically embraced—some would say promiscuously embraced —by the institution that was long thought to be the principal counterweight to the restless avant-garde spirit.

The art museum thus finds itself at the end of the twentieth century in the curious position of having supplanted art itself as the leading advocate and agency of innovation in our artistic affairs. What was formerly a highly individualistic impulse has now become an established bureaucratic practice, and there can be no question but that the museum’s adoption of this radical role has been accompanied and indeed accelerated by widespread approbation and applause. There are dissenting voices, of course, but if the command of money, resources, publicity, prestige, and sheer numbers of people is a measure of success in the life of an institution, then the transformation of the art museum into a vehicle of headlong cultural change must be pronounced a resounding success.

Yet, just as Braque once observed that in the making of art every acquisition involves an equivalent loss, it may be appropriate to ask what this huge success has cost us. While there is little likelihood that the momentum that has propelled our museums on their present course will soon be reversed, it nonetheless behooves us to see as clearly as we can where this course is taking us and what further sacrifices are to be exacted as the price of developments still to come. For certain sacrifices have already been made, as almost anyone whose experience of museums goes back a few decades will readily attest, and we may be sure that an institution that has so irreversibly tethered its fate to the principle of dynamic change will be called upon to make a good many more.

Museums have long ceased to be places that people visited solely or primarily for the purpose of looking at works of art.

One thing is beyond dispute. As a result of the immense growth of museums and their embrace of the principle of dynamic change, more people than ever before have been induced to take some sort of interest in art, or induced at least to take an interest in matters that have the appearance of being somehow related to art. It must also be said that this new multitudinous public has access to a program of events, exhibitions, entertainments, publications, etc., far more various and far more numerous than any that was offered by museums in the past. Many of these activities are not, to be sure, what I have heard described by museum officials as “object-oriented.” That is, they are not concentrated on specific art objects. But then, museums have long ceased to be places that people visited solely or primarily for the purpose of looking at works of art. They are now the venue of all sorts of other activities that can be described as museum activities only in the sense that they take place under the roof, or at least under the auspices, of the museum. Yet with serious artistic matters, with learning or intellectual improvement or aesthetic enlightenment of any sort, these activities often have little or nothing to do. They come under the general heading of social diversions.

We now take it for granted that the art museum is an appropriate place in which to order lunch or dinner, buy something to wear, do our Christmas shopping, see a movie, listen to a concert, attend a lecture on anything under the sun, possibly even art, and also on occasion participate in a wedding party, a cocktail party, a charity benefit, a business reception, a fashion show, or some other lavish social event for which the museum is deemed a suitably prestigious facility. In the museums that now offer such services and distractions, it is still possible, of course, for people to look at works of art, and many do. Yet except in the highly publicized special exhibitions that draw the crowds, the galleries containing works of art are likely to be emptier of visitors, even on weekends, than they were a generation ago. This is no doubt some consolation to the beleaguered connoisseur looking for a quiet corner in which to have an unimpeded view of a favorite masterwork, but it is not exactly a happy index of the museum’s interest in cultivating a loyal public for its greatest treasures. The overall atmosphere in our big museums, anyway, does not really lend itself to the cultivation of such a public, which cannot be expected to prosper in an environment of hubbub and hucksterism. In lieu of this public the museum now has members, who avail themselves of the social diversions and add to the hubbub without in any way constituting a serious public for art.

This development is no longer to be regarded as a peculiarly American phenomenon, by the way. We may have pioneered the move toward a broad diversification of the art museum’s interests and functions, but the phenomenon itself is now widespread. When we enter the Louvre nowadays through the famous glass pyramid, we descend by escalator into a vast, bright, sprawling space that resembles, more than anything else, the interior of a huge international airport in the busy holiday season. There are lines everywhere—a line to enter the pyramid itself, and then more lines at the cloakroom, the washrooms, the ticket booth, and the cafeteria. (Except in the immediate vicinity of the famous tourist attractions—the Victory of Samothrace, the Mona Lisa, et al.—the crowd is considerably thinner in the galleries, where most of the art is.) And at this “new” Louvre or Grand Louvre, as it is now to be called, there is worse yet to come. According to an interview with Michel Laclotte, the director, “in the future, a shopping mall and a substantial underground parking lot will complete the new underground areas of the Louvre.” We are assured that despite this vast expansion of the Louvre’s functions and facilities, “in Michel Laclotte’s mind, no concessions have been made to mere trends or fashions”—a statement which, if it means anything, can only mean that the director of the Grand Louvre is oblivious to what is going on under his own authority.1 For at every turn in the labyrinthine sprawl of the new Louvre we are in the grip of every trend and fashion that has beset the art museum for several decades now.

Adding a huge underground shopping mall to the airport-like entrance to the new Louvre will have the virtue, I suppose, of carrying the logic of the new museology to its ultimate conclusion. Martin Filler, writing in a recent issue of the London Times Literary Supplement, gave us an excellent account of where this logic was heading even before the Grand Louvre was on the drawing boards. “I. M. Pei’s East Building for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, completed in 1978,” wrote Mr. Filler, “is dominated by a vast, glass-roofed atrium—replete with escalators and potted ficus trees that give it the aspect of an upmarket shopping mall—while the oddly shaped galleries relegated to three towers on the periphery of the central courtyard and the subterranean changing-exhibition spaces seem like grudging afterthoughts. Intentional or not, the architect’s adaption of the imagery of the contemporary market place reinforces the notion of museum-going as yet another consumer activity.”2 In this respect, at least, it must be acknowledged that the French, albeit with some help from us—Mr. Pei is also, of course, the architect in charge of the Grand Louvre—have outdone even American efforts in this direction by uniting the shopping mall and the art museum in a single gargantuan facility. Alas, one is reminded that Andy Warhol’s joke about the many things that department stores and museums have in common is turning out, as so many of Warhol’s jokes have, to be a deadly prophecy.

The museum has become a captive of its own success.

It would be difficult to say whether this rampant commercialization and consumerization is only a symptom or a primary cause of the altered relationship that now obtains between the art museum and its public, but there can be no question that this relationship is now the main issue facing the art museum as an institution. It determines much of its budget, its program, its choice of personnel, and its general ethos. To a larger extent than is commonly supposed, the museum has become a captive of its own success, and what is so striking now about its relation to its public is the extreme degree of anxiety and uncertainty that has come to characterize every aspect of it. Often the problem comes down to catering—in every sense—to a public that does not know exactly what it has come to the museum to do or see. This public wants, at one level or another, to be amused, instructed, gratified, edified, or otherwise diverted. Nowadays, too, with the toxin of multiculturalism threatening the intellectual integrity of arts institutions of every kind, the public may also come to the museum in search of political satisfaction. The experience of art is likely, in all too many cases, to be entirely peripheral to what is looked for in the museum.

With museum-going now separated in this way from a genuine interest in art—and by this I do not mean only a professional interest, for it is the amateurs of art who have traditionally constituted the true museum public—it was inevitable that the art museum would be obliged to devise new stratagems for attracting its public and retaining its loyalty. That these stratagems have, for the most part, less to do with education than with marketing is a reflection of the museum’s low estimate of the public it has won for itself with such great effort. Hence the sometimes extreme measures that even great museums are driven to in their quest for the high attendance figures that are now needed to justify the expense of major events. When, a few years ago, I heard the radio commercials for the Caravaggio exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—commercials that attempted to make the show sound as much as possible like an X-rated movie—I knew that we had entered a new period in the relation of the museum to its public. This was, after all, advertising aimed at the “educated” segments of the public, and it was not only the appeal to a prurient interest that was obnoxious. It was also the cynicism implicit in the whole endeavor, for the museum officials responsible for this advertising campaign surely knew that the exhibition they were touting in this unseemly manner was incapable of satisfying the kind of sexual curiosity the ads were designed to arouse. As a result, the art was demeaned, the public misled, and the institution degraded. This was not an isolated case, either. The same advertising strategy was used by the same museum to promote a showing of Balthus’s paintings, too. In other words, a policy had been established to cope with a pressing need—the need to entice a public in whose artistic judgment the museum has no confidence whatever.

This low estimate of the public’s interests and appetites, with its corollary reliance on marketing rather than education as a means of recruiting new constituencies, is even more vividly in evidence in the kinds of new museum architecture that have been created at such vast expense in recent decades. The field of museum architecture has in fact emerged in this period as a cultural battleground of considerable significance, for in the debates that the new museum architecture has prompted, as well as in the particular buildings it has produced, virtually all the most contentious issues concerning the future of high art in our democratic society have been broached, and in them we have been given a glimpse of the way these issues are likely to be resolved, or left even more conflicted and unresolved, for many years to come.

The art was demeaned, the public misled, and the institution degraded.

The first thing we notice about a great deal of the new museum architecture—and this is as true of the refurbished Los Angeles County Museum of Art as it is of the new Louvre or the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington—is that the palace-of-art, or temple-of-art, ambiance has been dramatically supplanted by the atmosphere of an emporium, a recreational facility, or a transportation center. This isn’t the whole story of the new museum architecture, to be sure—the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Picasso Museum in Paris afford a very different order of experience—but it is the largest part of the story, and the part most likely to be emulated in the future. The grandest of the new museum spaces tend to be allotted not to the contemplation of art objects but to the activity of the crowd—as a crowd. The debate that has attended the creation of the new museum architecture is, moreover, almost wholly shaped by this shift from an environment of reverence, as it may be called, to an atmosphere of activity and consumption. And while it is less a debate about the philosophy of art than about the philosophy of leisure, it nonetheless has grave implications for the place to be accorded high art in our culture.

Like all cultural questions these days, this debate about museum architecture also has an important political dimension. In the policy disputes governing the new museum architecture, no less than in other branches of the arts today, we have been witnessing the struggle—sometimes it seems as if it were the final struggle—between those who, on the one hand, believe that the future of our civilization depends on safeguarding the integrity of high art from the leveling imperatives of popular culture and populist politics, and those who, on the other hand, are dedicated to destroying—in the name of democracy and equality, of course—all sense of hierarchy and all distinctions of quality in the life of culture itself. The latter have been especially concerned to discredit the idea of the museum as a “temple” or “palace” of art, which in their view is not only an outmoded museological paradigm but a politically vicious one, and they argue in favor of the kind of design, the kind of program, and the kind of technology that will shatter forever the entire range of museum practices traditionally used to re-enforce the sense of hierarchy and the distinctions of quality they so intensely despise. Needless to say, connoisseurship at any level is dismissed as an interest identified with the odious elitism of the past. In the brave new world of the new museum—the populist museum, as it may be called—every interest, including a lack of interest in art, is to be on an equal footing with every other interest. The art object is thus to be denied its traditionally “privileged” place in the institution that was originally created to preserve and celebrate its existence.

The most respectable exponents of this populist museum model—Mr. Pei is, I suppose, the outstanding example among the architects—bear no grudge against art objects, of course, but they tend, all the same, to favor the kind of consumerist museum plan described by Martin Filler and so enthusiastically embraced by Michel Laclotte. But there is also a more radical faction in this debate that takes as its primary goal the downgrading—or, as they say, the desanctifying—of the art object in favor of techno- logical simulacra that can now make images of the art object instantly accessible to ever larger numbers of people. Not the experience of art but the consumption of “information,” not the ideal of high culture but the easy, ephemeral pastimes of entertainment, are what now, in this view, should be made the museum’s top priority.

Mr. Davis’s allegiance turns out to be clearly committed to what he calls the “post-object” role of the museum.

It is from this perspective—best described, perhaps, as that of a technocratic populism—that we have lately been given a glossy book called The Museum Transformed.3 Its author is Douglas Davis, who was for many years a writer for Newsweek; its subtitle is “Design and Culture in the Post-Pompidou Age”; and its foreword is by Jack Lang, the French cultural minister, who is himself a champion of the technocratic populism Mr. Davis espouses. The Museum Transformed is, as an intellectual artifact, a perfect example itself of the way the appeal to fashionable consumption is nowadays combined with the denigration of the art object and the advocacy of radical cultural policy in discussions of museum matters. The format of the book is that of the upscale coffee-table picture book, with its many color plates and its lavish use of decorative typography, yet in the nearly two hundred illustrations to be found in The Museum Transformed, which surveys a good many of the art museums that have been recently built or significantly altered, we are afforded very little sense of what it is like to look at works of art in these structures. You can turn many pages of this big book without having a glimpse of an art object, and this, I think, tells us most of what we need to know about the author’s view of the museum’s real function today. It is scarcely a surprise, then, that Mr. Davis’s allegiance turns out to be clearly committed to what he calls the “post-object” role of the museum, which, owing to what he also calls the “post-contemporary condition” of our culture, is—or at least ought to be—in the happy position of dispensing with the traditional obligation to provide, as he says, “first-hand access to the sacred object.”

While it may still be necessary for the museum to provide such access to the art object, it is Mr. Davis’s view that “the evolving museum must see itself as a medium of information and pleasure.” This, in any case, is the direction in which “the audience and the program of the museum” are said to be moving, and ought to be moving, and an institution that remains “committed to posing as the cathedral of the irreplaceable object” is merely pursuing a lost cause. Instead of a concern for what Mr. Davis calls “unique totems sanctified by scholars and historians”—one of the author’s many sneering epithets for the accumulated aesthetic achievements of an entire civilization—museums are advised to look to technology and the theories of Walter Benjamin for proper guidance in these matters. Why should the actual art object matter, anyway, when technology has already rendered its physical presence obsolete? He thus invokes “the presentation of information about the world’s authentic treasures, now easily recalled for our eyes and minds by electronic media or by holography, in media varying from the television set to the home computer . . .  or to monitor terminals installed in the museum itself,” and this development is acclaimed as the happy realization of Benjamin’s theory of the desanctified art object.

Long ago [Mr. Davis writes] the German critic Walter Benjamin prophesied that the mechanical reproduction of works of art through photography and film would diminish our insistence on confronting the “aura” of art only in its original state. . . .  Now we have the means to “move” any treasure in a matter of seconds from the vault of the Louvre to a terminal in Columbus, Ohio, before a viewer conditioned by now to intuit the lost “aura” of a work of art in its duplicate state.

But is it really the “aura” of the work of art that we go to a museum to have an experience of, or is it something else, something far more concrete that cannot be experienced in “its duplicate state“? This refusal to make a distinction between aesthetic experience and what is now called “information” is central, of course, to this utopian—or should I say dystopian?—vision of the museum of the future. In his chapter on “The Museum in the Next Century,” Mr. Davis writes:

Because the possibilities for instantaneous transmission of visual and textual information are now almost limitless thanks to computer systems of instantaneous retrieval . . . each museum is now potentially every museum.

The awful thing is that Mr. Davis is by no means alone in believing in this chimera—nor alone, either, in his eagerness to see this museum of the future quickly and fully realized. Almost nothing that the new museum architects have so far produced for us comes close enough to the ideal he envisions. The Pompidou Center in Paris is the closest approximation, but its futuristic mission has been subverted, in Mr. Davis’s view, by old-fashioned curators who persist in their benighted attachment to the art object and to devising sympathetic ways of exhibiting it—admittedly, an uphill task at the Pompidou Center. Certainly the art object is nowhere mentioned in Mr. Davis’s evocation of what the “next” museum will ideally offer us:

The grand staircase, the broad walkable corridors, the honeycombed asymmetrical galleries, and of course the elegant theaters and restaurants are the obvious interior elements that define the potential of the “next” museum. . . .

The curious thing is, except for the remaining presence of those “unique totems sanctified by scholars and historians,” this sounds to me a lot like the museum buildings we have lately seen erected, but Mr. Davis is apparently the kind of purist who will not be satisfied until the museum is entirely object-free.

Is that day close at hand? I frankly doubt it. The art object is not going to be eliminated from the museum, but what is already upon us in the museum is an altered attitude toward the work of art. It is no longer trusted to speak for itself. It needs, so to say, to be brain-washed. It must now be seen to speak for, or about, something else. The way in which the art object is presented in the museum, the way in which it is interpreted, deconstructed, “contextualized,” politicized, and otherwise de-aestheticized, reflects a loss of confidence on the part of museum professionals in art itself. It is also a reflection of the shift that has taken place in the academic study of art—the shift from connoisseurship to theories and methodologies derived from the social sciences. The immense influence of structuralist and post-structuralist theory has also played a crucial role in this trend among museum professionals to de-aestheticize the interpretation of art and treat the art object as if it were just another artifact in what is now called material culture. Aesthetic categories are now shunned in the museum in favor of sociological and political categories. The charge of “formalism” is now almost as dreaded in the museum world as it used to be in the Communist world. While militant Marxists remain a small minority among museum professionals, the Marxist notion of relegating art to the so-called “superstructure,” where it is seen to be an embodiment of social and economic forces more profound than itself, has now become part of the conventional intellectual wisdom of a great many curators who have never read a line of Marx himself.

Often entire exhibitions are now organized on the basis of such ideas. The show called “The West as Art,” which caused such a furor at the National Museum of American Art in Washington last season, was but one of many recent examples, and most of them cause no furor at all. And this changed attitude toward art is also beginning to be reflected in the way museums present their permanent collections to the public. This summer at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, for example, the seasonal “Selections from the Permanent Collection” exhibition was mounted under the title “American Life in American Art, 1950-1990,” and it was billed as a survey of “postwar paintings and sculpture exploring themes from prosperity to critiques of the American Dream.” When one ascended to the third floor of the museum to see what had been selected to represent this documentation of “prosperity” and “critiques of the American Dream,” there were familiar paintings by Milton Avery, Richard Diebenkorn, and Lee Krasner, and sculptures by David Smith, among many other objects, that had nothing whatever to do with these subjects. I don’t suppose that most visitors to the Whitney were even aware that these and the other works of art in the exhibition were intended by the museum staff to be “read” as social documentation and criticism. But that will change. With the announcement in July that Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, a left-wing stalwart of the October magazine circle, has been appointed to a position that makes him, in effect, the Whitney’s chief political ideologist, you may be sure that we shall be seeing a good many more “critiques” of this sort far more aggressively pursued. According to David A. Ross, the new director of the Whitney, Mr. Buchloh “will have a key role in providing an environment that encourages critical study and theoretical inquiry into the practices, institutions and discourses that constitute the field of culture.” This, you may be sure, sounds the death knell to whatever remained of a remnant of a serious and disinterested attitude toward art at the Whitney. From now on it will be more and more politics and less and less art, though the politics will be presented, of course, in the name of art.

And this political, anti-art course at the Whitney will be pursued in tandem with a revivified emphasis on consumerism at the museum. Mr. Ross’s other big initiative this summer was the refurbishment of the Whitney’s restaurant and the installation of a new chef. If you think that consumerism and political radicalism represent conflicting polarities in the new museum world, you are mistaken. Nowadays they live on very easy terms with each other, for each conforms to a fashion of the moment, and they are alike in diverting the museum from its real function. Neither contributes anything whatever to our understanding of art. That is what makes them so attractive to the new breed of museum director. You will see the same program of consumerism and left-wing ideology in command at the expanded Guggenheim Museum whenever its director gets around to reopening it. In the new museum there is no need to eliminate the art object. You may instead render it socially and intellectually invisible.

Of the art museum at the end of the twentieth century it may truly be said that nothing fails like success.

  1.   See Raoul Ergmann’s interview with Michel Laclotte in The New Louvre: Complete Guide, published by Connaissance des Arts in 1989.
  2.   “Money-changers in the Temple” by Martin Filler, in The Times Literary Supplement for July 19, 1991.
  3.   The Museum Transformed: Design and Culture in the Post-Pompidou Age, by Douglas Davis; Abbeville Press, 240 pages, $55.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 1, on page 5
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